Katherine Milligan of Collective Change Lab on the Power of Relationships

16 August 2022 | The Business of Giving Podcast

Available on Apple, Spotify and Anchor

Denver Frederick is the host of The Business of Giving, a podcast that focuses on solutions to today’s complex social problems, and the people who are bringing about systems change through their work. He regularly has deep and insightful conversations with Catalyst 2030 members.

The following is a conversation between Denver and Catalyst 2030 member Katherine Milligan, Director of Collective Change Lab, Inc.

Katherine Milligan
Katherine Milligan, Director of Collective Change Lab, Inc.
Denver: Katherine Milligan is a teacher, writer, speaker and mentor in the field of social entrepreneurship. She’s led the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and launched the first-ever Harvard executive education module on systems change.

Among a number of other roles she currently holds, she is Director of Collective Change Lab, and she’s with us now. Welcome to the Business of Giving, Katherine.

Katherine: Thank you so much, Denver. Really great to be with you today.

Denver: Great to have you here. Tell us about Collective Change Lab and of its mission.

Katherine: Thanks. That’s a great place to begin. So, we support people, organizations, communities, and collectives in catalyzing systems change. And I describe this as a think-do tank.

Our mission is to catalyze dialogue on how large-scale social change or systems change happens, and we also work directly with collectives and networks of social change leaders to build their capacity for doing the work of systems change.

Denver: You mentioned systems change. Everybody has a different definition of systems change. What would yours be?

Katherine: That’s such a good question. I’ll offer a couple of different definitions. It is a term that gets tossed around a lot, and it’s often very academic and complex. There are a lot of frameworks out there. Many of them are filled with jargons. There are a couple that I like in particular.

A definition put forward by Catalyst 2030 is to address root causes rather than symptoms by altering, shifting and transforming structures, customs, mindsets, power dynamics and rules across a diverse set of actors, with the intent of achieving a lasting improvement of a societal issue.

Now, that can be wordy. And so, the definition that we use at the Collective Change Lab is a much simpler one. It’s evocative. It comes from the social innovation generation. And the definition we use is systems change is about shifting the conditions holding a problem in place.

Denver: Ooh, I like that. That is so clear and simple.

Katherine: It is, and it is very helpful. I’ve lost count of the number of social entrepreneurs and other social change leaders, who’ve told me that really resonates with them, and it’s particularly useful if you know what those conditions are.

Denver: Yeah, are social entrepreneurs finally coming around to understanding that there are limits to incremental growth, and that really systems change has to take place because scaling just isn’t going to get the problem solved?

Katherine: Well, I don’t think it’s an either/or; I think it’s  both, and it really depends on the nature of the problem and whether there is like a known, let’s say, intervention or programmatic solution with a strong evidence base behind it that really does need to be replicated and scaled to be able to reach more people.

Or whether in this whole world of systems that we’re talking about, we’re talking about complex adaptive problems that defy simple, end-point or direct-service delivery solutions.

And that’s something that the Catalyst 2030 has been actually advocating for years. And to answer your question, I would say, on the one hand, systems change has been in the background probably for 10 or 20 years.

And on the other hand, I really see that it’s been within the last four to five that the main actors, the entrepreneurs themselves, and a bunch of intermediary organizations, support organizations, networks in the sector have coalesced around this concept and this term..

Denver: Got it. Let me get your thoughts on collaboration because, Katherine, collaboration is at the heart of systems change, but the way leaders go about collaborating sometimes falls just a little short. What are the values leaders need to commit to that will help guide their work together?

Katherine: I love this question because SDG 17, Partnerships for the Goals, everyone is talking about partnerships and collaboration. And yet, the reality is those collaborations fall short, the vast majority of them… I’m not trying to generalize, so to speak for everyone.

But any social sector or development professional who’s been involved in a partnership, a multi-stakeholder initiative knows that the vast majority of them are highly transactional in nature. What does my institution get out of this? How does my brand benefit from this? How does being a part of this collaborative effort serve our corporate agenda or my boss’s personal agenda?

So, that’s, I think, quite prevalent. The other, I think, is when we say transactional, and I’ve been in some of these as well, people go straight to, okay, the brass tacks, right? “You’ve got a product; we’ve got a distribution channel; let’s partner for impact.”

We go straight into planning. We don’t even really know anything about each other as people, as humans. And that is real life, and we are all grownups, and those partnerships can unlock resources and achieve good things. But when it comes to the realm of systems change, that’s mindset. And that approach to collaboration is just simply not going to get us from here to there.

When we say relational systems change, it is precisely about the values. It is a values-based approach that you’re speaking of. It starts with the premise that working at the deeper level of systems is about catalyzing shifts in our mental models and in how decisions get made, in how power is exercised.

And that requires fundamentally different ways of relating to each other. It includes, for example, creating a spaciousness and a sense of safety, especially for those who don’t have power, who feel comfortable enough that they can express themselves freely. It requires a willingness to have conflict and, in a sense, making it through that conflict, and to not shut down and to retreat into our corners.

Another value is people talk a lot about authenticity, but to allow yourself to be vulnerable in not only truly seeing others and connecting to them, but in letting yourself be truly seen, and that’s very scary for many of us.

But it’s when we are talking about collaboration and when we use this term, relational systems change, that’s what we mean. It’s about acknowledging that we exist in relation to those around us, and we have to incorporate that mindset and those practices into how we approach the work of systems change.

Denver: Yeah. It sounds like it takes a little bit of patience because, again, I’ve been reared on: let’s get the clear objectives. Get a single playbook. We know where we want to go. We go right to the solution. And what you’re suggesting is: take a little time, really build those relationships with each other. And, I guess, that’s where you can get the shift in the power dynamics through those relationships.

Katherine: That’s right. Particularly, when it comes to relationships between different actors.  If you think about the decision makers or the power holders in a system, one of the things that can gum up a system or prevent it from working more inclusively… or can slow it down is how many layers of bureaucracy and hierarchy separate those decision makers from the actual communities and families and people that are affected by those decisions.

And you’ve been around this world for a long time, and you’ve talked to a lot of leaders in this world; you understand all of us: we start out with that motivation and that desire. And often with that direct connection, the higher you go, the more layers there are, and then the more challenging it is to actually cut through that hierarchy and create those authentic relationships.

So then, the question becomes: How? How do you do that in an authentic way and not like a forced way?  And so, generally that could be the role of a backbone organization or other type of convener, a neutral player, who’s bringing in actors, but it’s also a question of the how in terms of this space that you’re creating for everyone to really show up and be their full selves.

Denver:  Yeah. You really do need an honest broker to be able to do that as opposed to somebody who has that agenda that you mentioned just a moment ago. You were talking about systems change, and you mentioned a moment ago, mental models. And I know there’s three different layers of that. And that probably is the deepest level of systems change that has been outlined by CCL, and it’s also the least visible. So, why don’t you explain what you mean by changing mental models?

Katherine: These are our belief systems, our worldviews, our norms, how we see and make sense of the world. How we explain or understand the nature of a problem and its causes is informed by our mental models. How we devise the strategy and determine what actions we’re going to take or even what actions are possible is informed by our mental models. And that in turn is affected by the broader narrative out there and the stories that we tell and retell.

And so, one of the initiatives that Collective Change Lab is working on is on systems storytelling. How do we tell stories of systems change that are more reflective of how change actually happens? Because the more stories that we tell, inform our mental models and help guide us to a broader array of possible courses of action to take… and outcomes.

Denver: Has COVID changed the approach to systems change at all, or is it pretty much what it was?

Katherine: That’s a big question, and I think it varies so much place to place. It’s hard for me to give a generalized answer, but I’ll point to a couple of things. Even pre-pandemic, the Social Progress Initiative found that the SDGs, of course, they’re also called the 2030 Agenda, because of the deadline just eight years from now, won’t be achieved until 2073.

And that was before this massive global disruption, the loss of life and livelihoods, millions of children that have been taken out of school, et cetera. So, on the one hand, many systemic approaches and delivery models were put on hold to just focus on that immediate challenge: keep people alive, keep our staff, the communities we’re working in safe, address the crisis, provide urgent care.

So, in some senses, you could interpret that as one step back. And in another sense, I think, it was two steps forward. The pandemic laid bare the best in equality in our societies. This has been said many times. It’s driven home, for people, how interconnected and interrelated we are. In other words, what was previously invisible to many became much more visible.

And at the same time, funders and non-profit leaders, and social change leaders of all stripes, we all experienced a crash course in emergence. If you think about any organization that completed a grant proposal or a three-year strategy plan in January 2020, you had to rip that up and deal with the crisis in real time as events unfolded and as the conditions kept changing.

And so, what that meant was, not uniformly and not across the board, but somehow, because those events were so extreme, it opened us up to change our mental models about some of the prevailing practices in our sector.

If you think about the power dynamics between funders and implementing organizations, how much documentation and verification is required; how do you build trust and accountability when there are travel restrictions? Why do we need flexibility and the capability to stop some things that no longer make sense and quickly shift resources and funding to adapt to new circumstances?

And these are things that social entrepreneurs and implementing organizations have been calling for for years.

So, I do think there’s a recognition as we move beyond the crisis phase that these quick, feel-good fixes obviously have always been woefully inadequate, but I think it’s plain now for all to see. And I do think there’s more appetite to tackle root causes with systemic interventions.

Denver: That was a wonderfully-balanced response, I must say. Now, you may disagree with the premise of this question, but probably not. And that is: why is this work so slow? Even when people approach it with the systems mindset, it can be so incremental, and the gains around equity and justice, so marginal. Why do you think that’s the case if you even agree with that?

Katherine: Well, I think, your sort of so slow and so incremental in some ways, I would agree. And it’s certainly what we’re hearing from practitioners, the social change leaders– a lot of frustration, and a recognition that we’ve been at this for so long, and we’ve got all the right pieces in place, and we are just getting these incremental gains. And how are we truly going to transform systems?

So, I do agree with the premise, and it is my sense that many social change leaders, practitioners feel stuck. I think it’s important to acknowledge that despite all of the urgency that we feel all around us, particularly with respect to climate… and we are speaking of the heat wave that we’re both in at the moment. I do think it’s important that we acknowledge that transforming systems is the work of decades.

It’s not months, and it’s not years. I wish I had a shortcut to transform human consciousness and our mental models and power dynamics, but there are so many economic and political forces pushing back and creating headwinds for these movements towards justice and equity.

And I truly believe that it’s a lifetime of work, and each generation can carry it only so far before the baton is passed on. And so, I think, the question is also: how do we get unstuck? If we acknowledge that we’re stuck, how do we get unstuck? How do we do the work of shifting these conditions at the deeper levels of systems?

And I don’t think that I have all the answers, definitely not. But I do think that working at these deeper levels of mental models and of power provides an opportunity to address these structural conditions of systems that we’re all focused on– our policies, our laws, our practices, our norms in a much more emergent way and collaborative way.

Denver: Yeah. Sounds like one of the mental models I need to change is just get a much, much longer time horizon… that this is going to take a while. And when you know that it’s going to be that, it changes the way you look at it.

And we come, I think, so much from a Wall Street quarterly report type mindset, where we want things instantly. And I think funders are slowly coming around to the idea that they’re going to have to redefine what success looks like because, as you say, it’s a long journey that ain’t going to be done in a year or two. 

Let’s move on to trauma and systems change.

And I know you’re working, Katherine, with The Wellbeing Project and Georgetown’s Red House initiative to raise awareness— how trauma shows up in most of the largest systemic issues that we face, yet this is something that no one ever discusses. What was the impetus that got Collective Change Lab to start leading the discussion around it?

Katherine: For me, this is about my personal journey, and I think anyone who’s done inner work, including their own trauma work, knows that trauma is not only out there. It’s in here, in all of us. And once you see that, you can’t unsee it. And it’s not just at the level of individuals. It’s also at the level of systems.

And so, that’s really what motivated me and my colleague, John Kania, and some of us at Collective Change Lab to join forces with, as you mentioned– The Wellbeing Project and Georgetown– to really look at this because you’re right. It’s not at all part of the mainstream Western discourse. It is painfully obvious and present to millions of people around the world.

And it’s part of their daily reality, but it’s almost never acknowledged and talked about. And yet, we feel that there is enormous potential in bringing together this sort of, I would say, the movement of collective healing from trauma and systems change, and what can we create when we bring those two worlds together.

Denver: Yeah. You mentioned getting unstuck. It would seem that this is one of the ways that individuals and communities can get unstuck. And that is to excavate the past and acknowledge it. Probably a pretty uncomfortable conversation for a lot of people, but really, it’s the way to move forward.

Katherine: That’s so well-put. For me, it’s actually part of my personal journey. I think our natural tendency is to believe that trauma is out there, but for anyone who’s done inner work, has done their own trauma work, we also know that trauma resides in here and in all of us.

So, I think, that’s a big part of the reason, the motivation, inspiration that John Kania and I, and all of us at the Collective Change Lab have in joining forces with The Wellbeing Project and Georgetown, as you mentioned, to really look at and understand: What do we gain when we deepen our collective understanding of how intergenerational trauma shows up as a force to be reckoned with in our systems?

 And the presence of trauma, on the one hand, it might seem obvious to practitioners working in broken systems and working in communities in pain, but it’s not obvious to many others, particularly to people in power, who are at a greater remove… and as you alluded to, Denver, trauma is still so stigmatized in mainstream society.

We don’t have permission to talk about it in a way. We don’t have a common language to talk about it. And so, it’s just easier for everybody not to go there. But at CCL, we strongly believe that we have to go there even if it’s scary, uncomfortable, if we’d rather look away because our systems are stuck; we have to get unstuck.

And, as many of the social change leaders we interviewed told us, they won’t necessarily use a medical terminology or a therapeutic terminology, but they recognize it, they experience it, they sense it. The mud that we feel stuck in, the reason things are not moving is the trauma or, they describe blockages in the system or a lack of flow. So, these are all symptoms or manifestations of trauma.

“As we think about moving from traumatizing systems to healing systems, there is no silver bullet, but what we heard pretty much across the board from all the practitioners we spoke with, all of the social change leaders, the social entrepreneurs, the Collective Change leaders is the power of relationships.

Collective healing allows us to tap into that healing power of relationships, and I personally believe that these types of methods hold the potential to heal at a scale that was not previously possible.”

Denver: That is unbelievable. That’s a huge undertaking you have. And I know that, Katherine, you’re coming out with a practitioners-oriented research paper on healing systems, which is going to be published in the Fall. Is that correct?

Katherine: It is.

Denver: I can’t wait for that. I know I’ve read some of your accounts online with United for Brownsville and things of that sort. It was really, unbelievably inspirational and eye-opening stuff.

Katherine: Oh, that’s so generous of you to say. So, a couple of things, just quickly on that. As we think about moving from traumatizing systems to healing systems, there is no silver bullet, but what we heard pretty much across the board from all the practitioners we spoke with, all of the social change leaders, the social entrepreneurs, the Collective Change leaders is the power of relationships.

Collective healing allows us to tap into that healing power of relationships, and I personally believe that these types of methods hold the potential to heal at a scale that was not previously possible. There are not enough therapists nor enough money to heal everyone through individual therapy.

And even if there were, wounds of a collective nature need a collective to heal. And we’ve come across evidence that collective healing can work. And in fact, there’s even a growing movement around collective healing.

And while there are early examples of pockets of healing that are happening in systems, generally among those who have a shared identity, it’s not really a part of the mainstream discourse, nor has it been meaningfully applied to the world of systems change.

So, that’s precisely what we’re trying to do with this paper, to look at: how can collective healing be done at a systemic level, across identities and power imbalances?  And we need especially decision makers and those in power to get off the sidelines and to engage with this and embrace a collective healing effort in their communities.

Denver: I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ll tell you that. Tell us about Catalyst 2030, the impact that you think it’s had, and maybe the impact on you, as well as an update of the progress that it’s been making.

Katherine: Catalyst 2030 is a vibrant, dynamic, supercharged, incredibly engaged global community of social entrepreneurs and change-makers working towards systems change across all the SDGs. And I’ve known the founding team for a long time; I know many of the leaders who are Catalyst 2030 members. They’ve not been around such a long time, and what they’ve achieved in short order is nothing short of astounding.

I guess, since you asked about the impact they’ve had on me, one of the things I think Catalyst 2030 has done so effectively is break down silos between networks to really create a movement powered by and for social entrepreneurs that brings in and, in the process, shifts even some of the power dynamics between the entrepreneurs working at the level of communities and a lot of the other organizations and actors in this space.

And I think that was long overdue and really healthy and really welcome, a really welcome shift also by those same organizations. So, it’s facilitated relationship-building first and foremost, trust, mobilizing the community around a common agenda, and presenting a unified voice and engaging with key decision makers, such as bodies at the UN.

In terms of us at Collective Change Lab, we are working with Catalyst 2030. It’s interesting to see in all of their events and engagements and sessions and discussions, one of the most profound impacts it’s had on me– and on us as an organization– is identify kindred spirits with whom we can forge partnerships.

So, it’s not just about attending events or conferences. It’s really about the relationships that you’re building with people through those conversations that then turn into something. It might be an informal collaboration, but it might also be a formal partnership, and that’s certainly proven to be the case for us.

“It’s almost like you can’t say “love”; it’s unprofessional. And yet, here we are trying to change the world and create more just and more equitable conditions for everyone. So, doing that from a place of love and abundance will serve us all.”

Denver: Yeah. It’s very consistent with everything that you’ve said so far, too, in terms of these deep, authentic, meaningful relationships is really the key to moving things forward.

Finally, Katherine, you’re engaged in so many interesting things. What are you particularly excited about at the moment or maybe looking forward to tackling next?

Katherine: I love that. And what an invitation to reflect on what’s calling me and where am I feeling my energy drawn towards. I think a valid critique of  system change is that it’s been largely a Western or a Northern- led discourse and does not always resonate in an emerging market or global South context, and I know that some people don’t like those terms.

We strongly believe at Collective Change Lab that this is a global conversation. It has to be. If we’re talking about collaboration, if we are talking about transforming systems, if we are in how we think and talk about transforming systems, we are looking towards more relational and emergent practices and approaches to doing so.

No one region or culture has the answers; there are practices out there, some of which have been in use for thousands of years that are not new. And in some senses, we’re not pointing to anything that’s new, but that simply aren’t a part of the dominant discourse and the mainstream practice.

And that lends itself very naturally then to collaborations with community leaders, grassroots leaders, system change leaders in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia, where we’re currently engaging in an exploration of what these concepts and approaches and mental models mean in your own local reality. And not just like translation is from a language translation, but from a cultural, historical, spiritual context even, because what we find is ultimately what we’re talking about are universal values and practices.

Denver: That’s pretty exciting. I hear what you’re saying about the dominant and the non-dominant culture. And in Western, we have top-down and we have hierarchies and time and facts and things of that sort. And in some of those other cultures you’re talking about, it’s much more of a collective and a whole different way of solving problems together. And things have gotten out of balance.

The top-down hierarchy has pretty much ruled the world. It’s nothing that one’s better than the other, but you don’t have a blend –even too much masculine thinking as opposed to feminine thinking, not one better or the other, but you need a blend and maybe by getting the blend of these things, that will be the breakthrough to solve some of the problems you’re talking about.

Katherine: Beautifully said. And I think the way that we put that is things have also got out of balance with respect to the cognitive or the rational, the analytical, just staying in the realm of our mind, which is a very Western, top-down, have-it-mechanistic way of thinking and approaching and addressing problems.

And we’re not going to say, of course– that has its place and rational analysis and a data-driven approach and all that, not to throw it out, but it is about this balance and also being able to bring in the heart and the spirit and talk about things like love and working from a place of love in service of others, and engaging, recognizing that there’s something bigger than ourselves, and engaging in some rituals and practices that help us tap into that sacred energy.

So, it’s not an either or and or, it’s about a combination or a balance of these so that we can get to a different place in how we see what courses of action are possible and how we move the needle collectively.

Denver: Yeah. That’s well-put, too, and it’s pretty much: those are the things we always checked at the front door of the office. You have the rational, spiritual, and emotional, and you walk up to the front door and all three are present. You go into the building and you say, “Okay, emotional and spiritual. I’ll see you after work.”

Katherine: It’s so true. It’s like one of the foundation leaders that we spoke with was like it’s almost like you can’t say “love”; it’s unprofessional. And yet, here we are trying to change the world and create more just and more equitable conditions for everyone. So, doing that from a place of love and abundance will serve us all.

Denver: For listeners who want to learn more about Collective Change Lab, tell us about your website and what visitors can expect when they come visit.

Katherine: You can go to collectivechangelab.org; check out our blog, our publications, and video resources. We did a number of webinars over the course of this Spring and Summer, which are all available. You can also learn more about our story-telling initiative and check out some of the podcasts that we’ve done on collective healing from trauma.

Denver: Thank you for being here today, Katherine. It was such a pleasure to talk with you.

Katherine: The pleasure was all mine. Thank you so much, Denver.

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